A North Star Dakotan Background Report: Who “Owned” the Land of the Native Americans in North Dakota?

The flags of four nations flew over what became North Dakota at different times during the era of the fur trade. France, England, and Spain claimed this place before the United States purchased most of what became North Dakota in a treaty with France in 1803. In 1818, the eastern part of the state still claimed by England, became part of the United States as well.

All the white explorers and traders, including those who first came as ambassadors of the United States, came in search of furs.

What the four nations said they “owned” was the right to trade with the native peoples already living in the area and to take the natural resources of the area. The nations who went to war and to conference tables to exchange this land did not ask the native peoples whether or not they could have the land, nor did the Euro-Americans treat the native peoples as owners of the land during this time.

France made the first claim on the area when La Salle in 1682 announced that his country owned that part of North America drained by the Missouri River. The French explorer was consumed by the idea of finding a water highway through the heartland of North America to the western ocean (Pacific) and on to the Orient.

The idea of paying for exploration and sending back to the home country great wealth from the fur trade began with La Salle, just about 100 years before the United States became a nation. This continued to be the basic reason whites came to the area through the 1850s, a period of over 170 years.

La Salle named the area Louisiana in honor of the King Louis XIV of France. The French explorer did not come to what is now North Dakota, nor did any other white person we know of, until La Verendrye came in 1738, over 50 years after it was claimed for France.

In the time in between La Salle’s declaration of ownership and La Verendrye’s visit, the Mandan people, probably about 6,000 to 8,000, lived in large communities near the mouth of the Heart River. By about the year 1700, the Mandan started receiving white trade goods from the English by the way of the Assiniboin who traded with the Hudson’s Bay Company in the north. The Arikara were still in what is now South Dakota. The Hidatsa had come from Minnesota and the Devils Lake area to the Missouri. The Crow people, once close to the Hidatsa, had moved to what is now Montana by the time La Verendrye came to visit the Mandan. The Cheyenne at this time were living in southeastern North Dakota after being pushed west by the Chippewa and Dakota, who had guns supplied through French trade.

By about 1700, the Yanktonai Sioux had come to the James River Valley of North Dakota from Minnesota. Relatives of the Yanktonai, the Assiniboin had broken with the Sioux sometime before 1640 and by 1738 were living in northwestern North Dakota. The Cree hunted in the northeastern corner of the state. By the year of La Verendrye’s visit, guns from the French were already being traded for horses from the Spanish to the southwest by the native people in the area.

In 1762, about 25 years after La Verendrye’s visit, “ownership” of the area changed when France secretly gave Louisiana to its ally Spain. The following year, in the Treaty of Paris at the end of the French and Indian War, France gave the part of the state drained by the Mouse and Red Rivers to England as part of the agreement, which resulted in the French giving up all claim to North America—until 1800.

In 1800, another secret treaty resulted in France getting back Louisiana from Spain. However, the French really never took possession. Napoleon sold the area that became North Dakota, except for the part owned by England. Finally, in 1818, England agreed to the present northern border of what became North Dakota.

As the United States grew and changed from 1812 on, what became North Dakota was part of several different territories of the United States. The land east of the Missouri River was part of the Territories of Missouri (1812–34), Michigan (1834–36), Wisconsin (1836–38), Iowa (1838–49), Minnesota (1849–61) and Dakota (1861–69). The part west of the Missouri River stayed part of the Territory of Missouri from 1812 to 1854 and then became part of Nebraska (1854–61) before joining Dakota Territory in 1861.

In the hundred years between 1750 (by which time the horse was prevalent everywhere in this place) and 1850, the area of influence of the different native peoples changed considerably. The Cree moved north, and the Crow and Cheyenne moved west—completely out of the state. The Yankton/Yanktonai dominated most of the eastern half except for the northeast where the Chippewa and the Metis (“mixed blood,” usually the descendants of French men and Chippewa women) dominated. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara consolidated after devastating epidemics killed many of their people along the Missouri River in the west central part of the state, the Assiniboin remained in the northwestern corner, and the Hunkpapa Lakota controlled the southwestern quarter.

At the beginning of the era, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara lived in thriving communities of villages of farmers and hunters. Indeed, even before the coming of the first Euro-Americans, the area was a trading center for nomadic tribes who came many hundreds of miles to make exchanges. The people living in villages were reduced to a small fraction of their original number during the era by disease brought by the Euro-Americans and in war with nomads mounted and armed with white guns.


By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change